There is one question I am asked a lot when I talk about products or brands that are not readily available locally here in Malaysia. It is this – “Did you buy it online?” and usually the follow up questions will be “Is it safe? Did you get taxed?”
I have also noticed that many otherwise seasoned shoppers balk at shopping at overseas websites. They’d rather wait for it to be available locally, buy from a local website despite a mark up in price, or use a personal shopper/reseller, to save on the perceived hassle, or perhaps get instant gratification.
Nothing wrong with that, except when I’m told by these same people that they find it hard to shop online from overseas, because they’re afraid! Well, there’s no need to be!
I was a little slow off the starting blocks with online shopping back in the day. Then, many websites did not ship to Malaysia, and it was very frustrating. Today, most do, with the odd exception.
I have become quite an avid online shopper. But I am very careful with what I buy and where I buy it from. And because I get so many questions, I thought it would be helpful to share my experiences and tips for a more painless shopping experience :)
I started writing this, thinking it would be quick and easy, only to realize after a spell that it was a lot bigger than it looks LOL! :D So, suffice to say, settle right in with a cup of your favourite beverage and maybe some sustenance. Even take a few days if you like :P
Why buy from overseas websites when you can buy locally?
Well, why not? :)
When you bear in mind that many of the products and brands available in Malaysia are imported, it makes sense sometimes, to buy from the country of its origin. Sometimes, it can work out cheaper, even when factoring in the exchange rate and shipping costs.
This is particularly true when you are after a luxury designer good. While most luxury brands have done their best to standardize their prices globally, you may still find that a French brand is still a wee bit cheaper in Europe. Sites like Luisaviaroma or Net-a-Porter helps equalize the playing field somewhat for us.
We are used by now, to the mark-up on local prices, whether due to taxes or distributor’s profit margins. These usually make the prices of goods a little more expensive than what they may be elsewhere. So, why not even that playing field? It is our hard-earned money after all. We want the best bang for our buck.
Sometimes, it is because I cannot get the size I want here, as it’s not carried locally. For example, I wear Ferragamo Varina shoes in B width, while only D width is carried locally, and that’s too wide for me. I’ve found that Shopbop carries the B width (Net-a-Porter carries C width – they don’t say so but they do), and a few times a year, they run quite generous discounts of up to 25% off, so I score my shoes at a much more affordable price. That’s also when I buy my Sam Edelman Felicia flats – the best and most comfortable ballet flats in the world bar none! :)
Some overseas retailers are also more generous with discounts and deals than local sites or retailers. Often, you end up with a better deal during sale time, so I wait till then to splurge.
Some sites from the UK even generously remove VAT when shipping outside of the EU (it is currently about 20% – not sure what’ll happen after Brexit) so you’re already saving 20% off the full price on a normal purchase. I love that, and when I couple that with a discount code or a sale, they get a lot of my money :P
Is it safe to shop at overseas websites?
It’s as safe as shopping at any website, provided of course, you are careful and do your research properly beforehand.
I am very careful about the websites I shop at. If it’s a site new to me, I do my research on it first, before making a purchase. Sometimes, I ask around to see if anyone I know has shopped at that particular site before. Sometimes, I take the risk.
You don’t hear a lot of people talking about websites like Naturisimo or Bath and Unwind, and neither do I. But I took a chance on them a few years ago, and found them to be legitimate, and have a decent selection of brands. I have now shopped at both of these sites fairly often since.
To be safer, always ensure that the website you’re shopping on is secure. Look at the address bar, and ensure that you see the lock symbol, and https. This is true whether on an overseas website or locally.
If you are still unsure, run the website through Google and see what pops up. If it’s not a legitimate site, it will usually be quite new, or people will report complaints. Scam sites do not last very long without being taken down.
Running the sites through Google also gives you an idea of what other people are saying about them. They could be legitimate, but have poor customer service. Or perhaps have a record of not responding to issues in a timely manner. You want to know of any pitfalls so you go into it with your eyes wide open.
Are their products authentic?
This again comes down to you doing your homework, and research before splurging. The websites I shop at are well-known sites. Some of them have physical stores, and most of them have been around for a while and are established.
I sometimes get questions about the authenticity of designer items sold on Net-a-Porter, Asos and Shopbop. The former is an established online store-front set up to sell designer brands, and their items have proven to be authentic. Shopbop and Asos have more mass appeal, but from my experience, they sell authentic goods too.
I have had the odd run-in with Shopbop, primarily due to the shipping, that’s put me off shopping with them. But to their credit, once I lodged a report with them, it was resolved quite quickly.
Also, always remember that if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. If you know that a particular product costs $100 and you suddenly see it being sold on a random website for $25, something is wrong. Avoid at all costs.
I also stay away from websites that sell very generic or a very random selection of items. Always click around, read the About page, the FAQ and the terms. Then, go to trusty Google and look up the site to see what others have to say about it. It could spare you a lot of heartache, stress and save you money!
What websites do I shop at?
In general, I stick to well-established websites. You may recognize some of them in this list that I frequent which is by no means exhaustive :) Do note I will only list websites that ship internationally, because I know I have an international audience, and I want everyone to benefit from a good deal! :) (Shipping info is correct as of Feb 2020)
- SpaceNK (beauty) – Free Shipping worldwide > £60
- Cult Beauty (beauty) – Free Shipping worldwide > £40
- Net-a-Porter (luxury fashion and beauty) – Shipping US$15 from APAC site or free over US$300 Duties paid
- Book Depository (books) – Free Shipping worldwide no limit
- Luisaviaroma (fashion) – € 30 Duties paid
- Shopbop (fashion) – Free Shipping > US$100
- Naturisimo (natural beauty) – Free Shipping > £100 (Get £10 off first order of £40)
- Bath and Unwind (beauty) – Free Shipping > US$25
- Lookfantastic (beauty) – Free Shipping > RM400
- Feelunique (beauty) – Free Shipping > £75
- Asos (fashion and beauty) – Free shipping > £40
- The Outnet (discount fashion) – US$25 flat
- iHerb (beauty, groceries and supplements) – Staggered shipping cost depending on weight, quantity and goods purchased
- Ebay (various – preloved designer goods) – Experience varies depending on the items shopping for, and how much homework you do but often, a good place to grab a deal on preloved items, or to find discontinued items
- Beautylish (beauty predominantly high end makeup brushes) – Free Shipping > US$100
- Cos Stores (fashion) – US$20 or free above a limit (no longer ships to Malaysia and Singapore)
Do note of course, that while I have had a positive experience with the websites listed here, all of which I have shopped at multiple times over the years, and am comfortable recommending, user experience will always differ from person to person.
I have come across any number of people who can tell you that they have had poor experiences with these sites. All I can say is that it’s a personal thing. I only recommend what I can comfortably use and that includes websites I shop at too! :)
How do I make payment on these websites? Is it safe?
My personal payment method of choice is PayPal. The reason is because I do not have to disclose my credit card details (nor have to remember my credit card number) and because PayPal has built-in purchaser protection.
You don’t need funds in your account, but you do need to link your credit card to it. The difference is that when you make payment, you go through the PayPal portal, instead of keying in your credit card details. PayPal has its share of complaints, which I have observed over the years, but I still use it for buyer protection.
If you do not receive your item within a certain period of time (I think it’s 30 days) then you can contact PayPal, open a dispute, and (usually) get your money back. Some sellers notoriously do not like using PayPal, as they feel it is more biased to the purchasers.
Personally, save for once when I had to open a dispute for a purchase on ebay many years ago, I’ve never had to avail of the service with a retailer. But it’s nice to know it’s there if I need it.
Otherwise, use your credit card to make payment. The exchange rate will be calculated when the transaction is posted to your statement, and experience teaches me that it is usually a wee bit more favourable than market rates.
If a problem arises with your purchase, e.g. you do not receive your goods or are unable to get a refund, you can contact your credit card to report the problem and try to get a chargeback. Personally, I have not availed of this remedy, so I do not know how it works. But if you have, it will be interesting to know how it works for you.
Whatever you do, DO NOT use your bank account to make cash payment. This includes using a debit card. The reason is that you are left without any recourse to a remedy should you not receive your goods. Once cash exchanges hands, that’s it. Poof! It’s gone.
I do the same even when shopping at local websites. Some sites offer the option to have online payment from your bank account. It’s convenient, but I never pick that option, because I want traceability, a record, and also a way to get my money back should a dispute arise.
REMINDER: Always look for the lock symbol and ‘https’ in the address bar. This tells you that you are on a secured website so information you leave on the site are private. It isn’t proof against a server breach, but it is one step of security. I never ever shop, give information or make payment on websites that are unsecured. It might just shock you how many local websites are.
Will I get taxed by customs on my online purchase?
The RM2.6 billion question :P
The answer is both yes and no.
I’ve been on both sides, and I can only tell you that you have to shop smart to not have to pay too much customs tax.
In Malaysia (different laws and regulations apply in different countries) we are taxed for goods “imported” that exceed a total value of RM500. The rationale I believe, is that anything less than that would be for private consumption, while any value more than that implies that it is for business. Do note that this sum of RM500 will be converted from the overseas currency, and will include shipping costs.
For example, even if you qualify for “Free Shipping” from the vendor, the cost of shipping may be estimated by the Customs department upon inspection, and a value assigned to it. This value will be added to the value of goods, and if it exceeds RM500, you are liable to pay tax. Free shipping simply means we don’t have to pay for shipping, but to the customs, it doesn’t matter. It still had to get here, and it adds to the value. Sometimes, this shipping cost is not factored into the calculations. I’ve had both happen to me, so it’s a little arbitrary.
It is also worthwhile to note that this value hasn’t changed in many years, so it hasn’t taken into account the rising prices of goods or the exchange rate. That’s a pity, because it means that we are sort of stuck with this rather low amount :P
From my experience, the tax rate is between 6-10% depending on the law in place at the time. I know many people grouse about this, but the customs man isn’t out to penalize you. He’s just doing his job, and the few times I’ve gone down to the Customs office at KLIA to clear my packages, they are really quite nice people. So, cut them some slack, and think of it as a doing your bit for your country’s coffers :P You are already getting a good deal on your purchase aren’t you? ;)
But if you’d like to eke out every last bit of savings from your purchase, yes, I do have some tips for you ;) Shh… don’t leak this to the tax man.
- Don’t buy in bulk – Don’t buy multiples of the same thing. The Customs man might think you’re running a business and tax you anyway, even though your purchase is under RM500. I usually only have one of each item in my package, which is far more likely for someone buying something for themselves. This is true especially when I purchase from iHerb. I often have a random grocery or household cleaning item in my box, and I rarely buy more than one of each item.
- Watch your total bill – I am usually quite careful to ensure that my total bill doesn’t exceed a certain amount. If shopping from a UK-based website, I keep my total to about £80 or under and from the USA, about US$100. With the current exchange rate, and factoring in any unexpected shipping costs, this usually comes to just below RM500, and allows me to slip through. If possible, split up your purchases and order them separately over a period of time. That said, I have split my purchases, only to have one package delivered and the other taxed. So perhaps the Customs were on to me :P
- Buy from sites that offer DDP (Delivery Duty Paid) – This is usually true for luxury goods. Websites like Net-a-Porter and Luisaviaroma offer a DDP option, where the tax is built into the price of the goods, so there are no surprises. You just pay up and wait for the package to show up at your door. No hassle and no math required! Shopbop allows you to decide if you’d like to pay your customs duties ahead, or pay upon delivery. In my last purchase, I opted to pay ahead, but ran into a bit of a problem with Shopbop and DHL, their delivery partner. I made a quick call to their helpline, and it was sorted out in a few days, but it was a bit unpleasant nevertheless.
- Consider your shipping options. Note that delivery by courier (DHL, Fedex, UPS etc) generally cost more than EMS or Registered Post. So, if you have an option, pick the cheaper shipping method, so it doesn’t add too much to the total cost of your item. I’m a bit of a gambler, and sometimes, even go for regular airmail untracked packages. But that’s me :)
- Go Airmail not courier. Aside from the cost, I find that airmail or registered mail packages sometimes slip through customs even though the value maybe higher than RM500. It’s a little gamble I take both on shipping and on the customs :P I believe it is usually due to the volume of packages that arrive daily at the customs that they may not scan every one as thoroughly. By contrast, when you opt for a courier or forwarding service, the courier or forwarder is duty bound to declare the value of the package so there is a 100% chance you’d be taxed. Using regular mail, there is a 50% chance, and I’m willing to take that chance ;)
A point to note is that all clothing and leather goods arriving from overseas will be taxed a flat 10% regardless of how much the item costs. So do take note of that especially if buying shoes or bags online.
I have managed to get away with not having to pay any taxes on Asos purchases for sneakers and the odd skirt, but I think it depends on the quantity. I was taxed on one Asos package, and not on another. So, I haven’t quite figured that one out yet.
How to pay your Customs taxes?
You can appoint a customs clearing agent to clear it for you (usually the courier company handling your delivery) or you can opt to clear it yourself. I’ve done both.
To clear your own package (if received via EMS or mail service), you will receive a written notice that the item is held at Customs. If you live in the Klang Valley, this will be at the International Mail Centre near KLIA. You can head down there with the tracking number to collect the item, open it up for inspection by the Customs officers, then let them assess the value (have a copy of the invoice on hand) before making payment (cash only) to have it released. The process can take a couple of hours depending on how busy they are.
The easier option is to let your delivery courier clear it for you. If buying luxury designer goods online, or buying preloved from Ebay, always ask for it to be shipped by DHL or a reputable courier service. Once it arrives in the country and is inspected by Customs, DHL will notify you of the tax payable (10% on the declared value converted into RM at the government exchange rate that may not be 100% similar to that of the current exchange) and their administration fee (currently RM50 + service tax). Once you agree with the amount, DHL will send you a link to make payment, and will proceed to clear the item and deliver it to you once the taxes are paid.
Personally, I’d opt for the second option, unless I have a lot of free time on hand.
Will Customs seize my packages?
I have heard of it happening, but *touchwood* not to me so far.
I have not received any warnings, nor have any of my packages detained or seized.
I have also had many people report to me of some warning notices they receive from the National Pharmaceutical Department for their cosmetics or supplements purchases. Often, this is from their iHerb purchases.
Personally I can tell you that I have never received notices like this. I do tend to mix up my iHerb orders with a mix of the odd supplement, beauty and even sometimes, crisps or bits of spices and groceries. Perhaps this makes it seem more innocuous? Or perhaps it’s because I never order more than 1 of each item at one go so as not to arouse suspicions.
If they deem you to be an importer of such pharmaceutical products then you do have to get clearance from the National Pharmaceutical Department. I have done it once for one order of shower products. I had a little time, so I went down to KLIA, claimed my package, then went across to the National Pharmaceutical Department to get the clearance. The lady at the counter was quite irritated that I was asked to bother her, because she could see that it was just random bottles of body wash and clearly not for sale LOL! So I got the rubber stamp, and that was that. No taxes, just a little time expanded, and a bit of experience gained :)
What shipping options do I pick to ensure I receive my package?
The safest is to pick a tracked shipping option.
This could be by way of courier (DHL, Fedex, UPS etc) or Registered Post or EMS service. Anything that offers you a way to track your package from its point of pick-up, through to its delivery.
Packages sent by tracked delivery rarely go missing, as you can monitor their journey on its way to you. If you see any curious delays or hiccups, you can pick it up right away, and contact the relevant people.
Some services are more comprehensive than others. The international courier services have the best tracking, so you can see just where your packages have been (often, more countries in a day than you visit in a year!) and you can track them right to your door step.
Others like EMS or Registered Post tracking are a little more vague. It is updated as it leaves the origin country, and then again when it enters the destination country. But in between, it’s usually a quiet little black hole.
If you’re brave, or just have a slightly misplaced trust in the postal services like I do then you can opt for regular mail LOL! :P If I qualify for free shipping, and it’s by regular mail, I just opt for that. I may be just lucky, but in the years I’ve been buying online, I’ve lost perhaps 3 packages for good (all replaced or refunded) and had a couple that were just very very delayed.
How long will my packages take to arrive from overseas?
It depends on the shipping option you choose, and how efficient the website is at packing your item and getting it out the door.
With a courier service, depending on where it is shipped from, I have gotten my purchases anywhere from the next day (from Hong Kong) to about 3 days (from USA/UK).
With Registered post or regular airmail (during normal shipping times, not festive seasons), it’s anywhere from 7-10 days from the UK/Europe to 14-20 days from the USA. During festive seasons, it can be longer. I don’t usually panic any time before then, and this is based on my personal experience. Naturally, your experiences will shape your expectations.
What happens if I don’t receive my package?
Other than panic and fly into a fit you mean? :P
If I don’t receive my package during my estimated period of time, I usually then check with the terms of delivery of the website. Often, they will tell you how long you should wait before notifying them of a missing package. Generally, it will be 6 weeks.
If so, I wait out that time and then contact the company to inform them that I have not received the package. The few times this happened to me, they offered to resend me my items. I usually get the second package.
There was once when I was offered a refund, as the item was no longer in stock. I thought it was fair. The original package never arrived.
Yet another time, about 2 weeks after the replacement package was received, the original package turned up on my doorstep! I could have kept quiet about it and enjoyed my double goodies, but didn’t think it was right to. So, I notified the company, and they very generously told me to keep it! Usually for me otherwise, missing packages rarely turn up.
This is why it is so important to shop at reputable online retailers, not some random fly-by-night website selling something cheap like a knock-off hair iron :P A reputable retailer will respond to you and tell you what to do, and what they can do for you. It lends them a lot of credibility, and instills consumer confidence.
What if my items arrive damaged or if I don’t like them?
If it’s the latter, then unless you shopped with a website that offers a very generous free returns policy like Net-a-Porter, then I’m afraid you’re stuck with it, buddy :P When buying online from overseas, it is important that you are quite sure of you want because mistakes can prove costly.
Do note that while Net-a-Porter allows you to send back your purchases for free if they don’t fit or if you just don’t like them, they will not refund the taxes already paid. So, be aware of this.
If they arrive damaged (that’s happened to me) I usually just take a picture of the damaged item and notify customer service right away. If it’s broken or smashed or destroyed, or in the case of my recent The Inkey List order, the whole tube exploded, then a refund is usually given immediately without me even asking.
If it is only minor damage e.g. a dent or a chip, they might offer a discount. It is of course up to you whether to accept it or pursue it further. Unless I buy something specifically for gifting, I am fine with slight dents in products I use, so a discount serves me fine. But if it doesn’t, then feel free to take it up further. In the case of one item I purchased from Net-a-Porter that arrived with a scratch, they offered to replace it. I just had to send it back (free), and they’d send me a new one. All resolved within a week! Some local websites can’t even deal with problems like this as efficiently.
From my experience with the websites I shop at, the customer service has been examplary. I generally have very few issues with them, and the few issues I do have, are resolved quite satisfactorily for me.
Have you used a shipping forwarder?
Shipping forwarders are quite popular these days especially if you want to shop from USA-based websites. You may notice that many of my beauty purchases are made from UK-based websites. The reason is because they all offer shipping directly to me, and offer free shipping with a very low threshold or with no threshold at all.
USA websites tend to be far more prohibitive in their shipping costs (except for iHerb) So, many people resort to shipping forwarders – Companies that offer you a local (USA) address that you have your items sent to, and they forward it on.
I have not used these services primarily because of the cost, and because I have a bit of trust issues. By the time the item arrives to me, and if it’s damaged, who do I take it up with? Also, can you trust the people who unpack and then repack your packages before it’s sent on to you?
I know many people use services like this so it must be quite safe. I personally just prefer shopping directly from the source. So, if a brand or an online retailer does not offer international shipping, or exorbitant international shipping, I go somewhere else that will ship directly to me. It may cost me a little more, but I get peace of mind.
Also there is nothing I want THAT badly to have to jump through hoops for :P
So that, my friends, is my definitive guide to shopping online for delivery to Malaysia, especially for beauty and some fashion products.
The basic tips are these:
- Know your retailer
- Make sure the retailer is a secure website
- Do your homework
- Don’t be greedy and you won’t be taxed :)
Happy to answer any questions you may have. If you have any further tips to share, please do! I’m quite sure I missed something out!
And on that note, here’s wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!